John Cusack in 'Love & Mercy'
Image: Roadside Attractions

John Cusack in 'Love & Mercy'

Love and Mercy is about hearing things that others don’t hear: the beauty of a cello part, mundane sounds from nature, the haunting cacophony of “voices in my head.” It’s as much an auditory narrative as a visual one, which makes perfect sense—the film chronicles the life of Brian Wilson, pioneering songwriter and music producer of The Beach Boys.

Oscar-winning composter Atticus Ross (The Social Network) spent nearly six months working on the film’s many-layered soundtrack, and the result is a beautiful attention to sound, from jet motors to elevator music in a car dealership to forks clanging at a dinner party of the sounds of pet dogs barking—though we’re not always sure if it is diegetic or non-diegetic (in or outside the world of the film).

Wilson’s life is a story of sensitivity to sound, for better or for worse. His early success with The Beach Boys came from his ability to mix sounds to perfect a new form of California pop and re-imagine the role of the recording studio as an instrument in its own right. Yet his hearing, coupled with all manner of psychotropic substances, plagues him with auditory hallucinations as well. Like many artists, Wilson’s most profound gift is also a curse. And his contributions to art come at great personal cost.

Starring Paul Dano as young Wilson and John Cusack as older Wilson, Love and Mercy shifts back and forth between a narrative of Wilson’s creative ascendency in the 1960s and his sad drug dependency in the 1980s.

'Love & Mercy'
Image: Roadside Attractions

'Love & Mercy'

The 1960s scenes chronicle Wilson and The Beach Boys as they transition from “Fun, Fun, Fun!” mainstream pop to the psychedelic soundscape of Pet Sounds, the album that announced the arrival of Wilson as a visionary producer on par with Phil Spector, whose “Wall of Sound” approach Wilson perfected in songs like “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations.” The latter song perfectly combined Wilson’s creative freedom and grasp of mass-market pop, resulting in a modernist musical masterpiece that was simultaneously Wilson’s “pocket symphony to God” and the best-selling single in Beach Boys history.

“Vibrations” opened the door for Wilson to basically have complete creative control, which became a bit of a curse. As Wilson’s musical experimentation in the Pet Sounds era had coincided with increased drug experimentation, his already unstable mental health began to deteriorate. Combined with the pressure of following up the success of “Vibrations” with a project that was to be his masterpiece (Smile), Wilson gradually descended into a drug-addled state of arrested creative development.

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The John Cusack portions of Love and Mercy show Wilson in this state, mentally and creatively inert, abused by an opportunistic entourage and a very bad psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti) who keeps Wilson heavily medicated. In this dark place, “love and mercy” arrives in the form of a car saleswoman (Elizabeth Banks) who helps Wilson gradually rediscover himself and hear the world again.

Though the “older Wilson” parts of the film are compelling and well acted (Cusack and Banks have never been better, and Giamatti plays a great villain), I found the narrative a bit too “love heals all” predictable. The “young Wilson” sections of the film—particularly their insights into the creative mind of Wilson as the height of his artistic development—are what make the film succeed as a biopic.

'Love & Mercy'
Image: Roadside Attractions

'Love & Mercy'

The best scenes in Love and Mercy are those that take place in the recording studio, showing Wilson at work. One of the film’s most striking visual moments depicts a 360-degree tracking shot that slowly pans around the studio, capturing a slice of life during the “Good Vibrations” sessions. The shot is a visual “taking in” of one of the key contributions of Wilson’s genius in action: “playing the studio” as an instrument in itself.

Rather than recording songs by the standard method of live-taped performances, Wilson’s method—of writing and individually tracking instruments, voices, and other sounds, and then splicing and layering them together—shows the producer’s role as a sort of high-level visionary, someone who sees the big picture even when the individual contributors or performers do not. His approach also values the energy and serendipity of the creative space, where mistakes and random voices aren’t avoided, but rather incorporated into the soundscape of the finished recording.

As a sort of critique of the post-war explosion of mass-produced, highly polished pop culture, where the end consumer product was cut off from the means of its production (think Warhol), Wilson’s method turns the production process into part of the art. Echoing the ambient serendipity of John Cage or the spontaneity of Pollock’s gestural abstraction, Wilson’s approach suggests that there is something elemental and deeply human about art making that makes it a sort of hallowed activity unto itself.

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Love and Mercy is directed by Bill Pohlad, a man who knows something of working with masterpiece-making creative geniuses who love capturing spontaneity and also tinkering endlessly at the editing bay, putting a plurality of pieces together to fashion a grand, visceral experience. Pohlad produced Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and is producing Malick’s forthcoming Voyage of Time documentary, both films that (like Wilson’s Smile) were many years in the making.

John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks in 'Love & Mercy'
Image: Roadside Attractions

John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks in 'Love & Mercy'

Like Wilson, Malick enjoyed critical acclaim and creative freedom early in his career. And also like Wilson, Malick seemed to suffer from the pressure to improve on perfection and from the fear of peaking early (following 1978’s Days of Heaven).

What Pohlad captures so well in Love and Mercy is how rare and hard-to-replicate true art is. Whether because of high expectations, drugs or inner demons, or just the natural inertia of creativity, even the most gifted artists have difficulty consistently churning out great work. Perhaps this is because art making actually cannot be just for itself. Unless it is for something or someone other than the maker, art making becomes a black hole. The sights, sounds, tastes and smells that an artist perceives must point to something beyond pleasure. Otherwise perception is just a closed transaction between the mind and the world.

True artistic genius seeks to manifest truth beyond the mind and is thus always in a sense about the transcendent, whether that be a cinematic prayer like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life or an LSD-inspired “pocket symphony to God.” Good vibrations, as it were, come from a higher Being and are reflected back to him through humanity’s creative genius.

Caveat Spectator

Love and Mercy is surprisingly tame for a film about rock stars. Though there are drugs aplenty (marijuana, acid, prescription drugs, etc.), the film doesn’t celebrate them; it depicts their gradual tormenting of a man suffering from addiction. The film has some language and a few briefs scenes of violence (a man hitting his son), and sex is implied (without nudity) between two characters. Otherwise the film is refreshingly bereft of the sort of explicit debauchery that one might expect in a movie with this subject matter.

Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based writer and journalist, and author of the books Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Baker, 2010) and Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker, 2013). You can follow him @brettmccracken.

Love & Mercy
Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Average Rating
(14 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (For thematic elements, drug content and language.)
Directed By
Bill Pohlad
Run Time
2 hours 1 minute
John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks
Theatre Release
June 19, 2015 by Roadside Attractions
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